When we look back in the last 50 years of military aviation, we see monumental advances in technology. The radar cross sections have decreased, computational power in the cockpit have skyrocketed, the stand-off range of weapons has increased & pilot no more flies the aircraft but is just an input to the system. Extrapolating this exponential curve of advancements, we are slowly moving towards the day when we completely eliminate the pilot from the aircraft in mainstream roles. Of course as we speak pilotless aircrafts or RPAs (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) are flying all over our head, but they are at best used for reconnaissance, surveillance, intelligence gathering & some amount of air to ground warfare but nothing mainstream like flying with and augmenting a fighter aircraft.
Interestingly HAL is developing such an aircraft, called the CATS Warrior which looks like it has teleported from the future. CATS stand for Combat Air Teaming System & the CATS Warrior is an unmanned stealth drone designed to fulfil the role of a wingman by flying alongside IAF fighters like the Tejas Mk1A & Jaguar to give the aircrafts a vital situational awareness & even weapon launch capability. The drone is being developed by HAL in a joint venture with Bengaluru based startup called NewSpace Research & Technologies & a 1:1 full scale model is displayed in the recently held Aero India 2021.
These pictures say a lot about this concept. The drone is basically designed to operate side by side a manned combat aircraft, primarily Tejas Mk1A & will have sensor suite which will be capable enough to gather a lot of data that the pilot in the manned aircraft otherwise wouldn’t have. It’ll then fuse the data together to form useful information & transfer it to the pilot which will result in far superior situational awareness & hence better mission efficiency.
The pictures also show that the CATS Warrior will have two internal weapon bays, one on each side that can carry a Smart Anti Airfield Weapon (SAAW) which is an indigenously developed precision guided anti airfield weapon. Consequently, the CATS Warrior armed with SAAW can target enemy airfields, installations, radar sites & air defence equipment from a standoff range, keeping the “man out of the loop”, thus reducing the mission risk by a huge margin. It further helps that the design is stealthy by nature which lowers the distance of being picked up by enemy radars. This means that the drone can fly further behind enemy lines undetected & hit further deep with the 100 km range of SAAW.
The main benefit of this system is since now the ground attack is being carried by the CATS Warrior drone, this frees up pylon space in the manned aircraft which is flying alongside, thus giving the aircraft an option to carry extra air to air missiles to effectively address the situation where in the enemy aircraft defends the airspace. In the past wars & skirmishes between India & Pakistan, a majority of the air to air kills have been recorded when the ground attack aircraft was approaching for the attack or was departing from the attack. In both the cases the ground attack aircraft never used to have any substantial air to air weaponry to counter-attack. This issue has been completely eliminated by CATS Warrior. A pair of drones can carry few SAAW bombs along with Tejas Mk1A (or other fighter aircraft) in Combat Air Patrol configuration which makes sure even if the enemy decides to defend by launching their point defence fighters, they are well contained by fully armed fighters while the CATS Warrior does its job.
A little about the specs of the CATS warrior. It is a rather small UCAV with 6.4-meter length & 4.4-meter wingspan. It’ll be powered by a pair of PTAE-7 turbojet engine or HTFE engine which will give a maximum speed of Mach 0.7 & a range of 800 km. The maximum take-off weight of 1,300 kg ensures a weapon load of 250 kg & in this configuration the endurance is 80 min.
It is important to bring into discussion at this point that the CATS Warrior airframe resembles the American Kratos XQ-58 “Valkyrie” drone, which is an experimental stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle designed and built by Kratos Defense & Security Solutions for the United States Air Force. The XQ-58 is being designed to act as a “loyal wingman” that is controlled by a parent aircraft to accomplish tasks such as scouting or absorb enemy fire if attacked. Both the aircraft look similar & are destined to do similar roles.
This kind of system will certainly provide a mammoth advantage to the IAF by boosting the offensive capabilities of the existing fleet of fighters & by bringing new dimensions of ground-attack capabilities. There is no timeline of the first flight or technology demonstrator but considering the fact that a private firm is a part of the development cycle, the drone might fly in about 1-2 years from now & enter into testing phases. On a bigger picture, this shows the growth of Aviation ecosystem in India. Gone are the days when HAL was the sole aircraft manufacturer. The Industry has evolved & many such aviation start-ups are fuelling the future of military as well as Civil aviation in India.
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